There is a second thing that is plainly spoken of that hinders prayer. James speaks of it in his letter (Jas_4:2-3). "Ye have not because ye ask not"—that explains many parched up lives and churches and unsolved problems: no pipe lines run up to tap the reservoir, and give God an opening into the troubled territory. Then he pushes on to say—"Ye ask, and receive not"—ah! there's just the rub; it is evidently an old story, this thing of not receiving—why? "because ye ask amiss to spend it in your pleasures." That is to say selfish praying; asking for something just because I want it; want it for myself.
Here is a mother praying for her boy. He is just growing up towards young manhood; not a Christian boy yet; but a good boy. She is thinking, "I want my boy to be an honour to me; he bears my name; my blood is in his veins; I don't want my boy to be a prodigal. I want him to be a fine man, an honour to the family; and if he is a true Christian, he likely will be; I wish he were a Christian." And so she prays, and prays repeatedly and fervently. God might touch her boy's heart and say, "I want you out here in India to help win my prodigal world back." Oh! she did not mean that! Her boy in far, far off India! Oh, no! Not that!! Yes, what she wanted—that was the whole thought—selfishness; the stream turning in to a dead sea within her own narrow circle; no thought of sympathy with God in His eager outreach for His poor sin-befooled world. The prayer itself in its object is perfectly proper, and rightly offered and answered times without number; but the motive wholly, uglily selfish and the selfishness itself becomes a foothold for Satan and so the purpose of the prayer is thwarted.
Here is a wife praying that her husband might become a Christian. Perhaps her thought is: "I wish John were a Christian: it would be so good: it really seems the proper thing: he would go to church with me, and sit in the pew Sunday morning: I'd like that." Perhaps she thinks: "He would be careful about swearing; he would quit drinking; and be nicer and gentler at home." Maybe she thinks: "He would ask a blessing at the meals; that would be so nice." Maybe she thinks: "We would have family prayers." Maybe that does not occur to her these days. This is what I say: If her thought does not go beyond some such range, of course you would say it is selfish. She is thinking of herself; not of the loving grieved God against whom her husband is in rebellion; not of the real significance to the man. God might touch her husband's heart, and then say: "I want you to help Me win My poor world back." And the change would mean a reduced income, and a different social position. Oh! she had not meant that! Yes—what she wanted for herself!
Here is a minister praying for a revival in his church. Maybe he is thinking; no, not exactly thinking; it is just half thinking itself out in his sub-consciousness—"I wish we had a good revival in our church; increased membership; larger attendance; easier finances; may be an extra hundred or two in my own pocket; increased prestige in the denomination; a better call or appointment: I wish we might have a revival." Now no true minister ever talked that way even to himself or deliberately thought it. To do so would be to see the mean contemptibility of it. But you know how sly we all are in our underneath scarcely-thought-out thoughts. This is what I say: if that be the sort of thing underneath a man's praying of course the motive is utterly selfish; a bit of the same thing that brought Satan his change of name and character.
Please notice that the reason for the prayer not being answered here is not an arbitrary reluctance upon God's part to do a desirable thing. He never fails to work whenever He has a half chance as far as it is possible to work, even through men of faulty conceptions and mixed motives. The reason lies much deeper. It is this: selfishness gives Satan a footing. It gives a coaling station for his fleet on the shore of your life. And of course he does his best to prevent the prayer, or when he cannot wholly prevent, to spoil the results as far as he can.
Prayer may properly be offered—will be properly offered for many wholly personal things; for physical strength, healing in sickness, about dearly loved ones, money needed; indeed regarding things that may not be necessary but only desirable and enjoyable, for ours is a loving God who would have His dear ones enjoy to the full their lives down here. But themotive determines the propriety of such requests. Where the whole purpose of one's life is for Him these things may be asked for freely as His gracious Spirit within guides. And there need be no bondage of morbid introspection, no continual internal rakings. He knows if the purpose of the heart is to please Him.